To Count or Not to Count
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
I have not been (actively) on SP long, I popped up in mid-March, which is when I started getting serious about my health and fitness. I have not lost a lot of weight in the scheme of things, 9kg (approx. 20lb) in that time. I don't know if that makes me less qualified to offer advice than others who have lost more or been here longer. But what I want to talk about today is whether or not counting calories is a good idea and why. And yes, this is all going to be my opinion, based on what I have seen, read, experienced and generally absorbed both in my time here and through other mediums (the internet mostly if I'm honest).
I am a calorie counter. I don't count carbs, I don't do any of the hip new diets that advise you to have no fat, high fat, all protein, no carbs, or anything in between. I have found something that works for me and I am happy to continue with what I know. I don't like to discuss these other options (most commonly floating around is low carb), because I haven't researched them, I don't practice them and I would be ill-equipped to therefore make any kind of judgement on them.
I've seen a lot of people on SP lately saying that it's not working, they're losing nothing. Some of these people have only been here a few days or a week, which is just not enough time to judge whether what you're doing is having any effect. The body is a funny thing and sometimes it will take a little while to get the scales moving. Others have been here longer and in this case, there is obviously going to have to be a reason things aren't working.
One tip I give anyone who pops up in the forums asking for help (I'm definitely starting to sound like a broken record) is, weigh your food. Guesstimating is incredibly inaccurate, so when you think you've got about 10g of nuts in that handful, it's more likely closer to 50g. We humans, we just don't guess weight all that well. Perhaps some kinds of mathematicians, but not the majority of us average Janes and Joes. The week I started this, I realised that I was probably not putting in the right amounts of foods and because I'm a little bit anal retentive, that just didn't sit right with me. I went out and bought a kitchen scale, which now pretty much lives on the bench and is used multiple times throughout the day.
Another possible setback that I personally struggled with in the beginning was eating too few calories. A lot of people have popped up saying they only eat 1000 calories a day, like that's a badge of honour, with a host of others congratulating them on their willpower. It may feel like you're doing extra great by taking in even less than recommended, but that's not how it works, it is actually going to be a setback in the long run, if it isn't already. I found out early there's a good reason Spark will never give you a recommendation of fewer than 1200 calories a day. This is because your body needs this to survive. When you are eating below this bare minimum, you are essentially starving yourself.
"But I'm not hungry, I'm not starving myself!" I hear you say (a direct echo of what I said). You are, even unintentionally. I personally found that at first I was trying to find snacks to get my calories up at the end of the day, like bananas, or crushed nuts in yoghurt. This didn't really sit well with me though, because I'm not really a snacker these days, I'd prefer to get more goodness out of my meals. After a few weeks of trial and error I found I could tweak most of our meals to get just a few more calories in each, thus pushing me up to within my range.
Staying within your range is important, but so many people don't realise it's just as important to stay above the minimum as below the maximum. We often focus so much on not overindulging, that we under-nourish ourselves. I wasn't purposely under-eating and I wasn't doing it for very long before I realised it was unhealthy and unhelpful, but I am certainly glad I've managed to get myself up into a healthy range. I now eat within my 1200-1500 range, more on days where I exercise a lot, and it is working well for me.
One big thing I've noticed some people doing (and why a friend's nutritionist specifically advised her against calorie counting) is starving themselves all day so they can eat a certain junk food for lunch/dinner. A lot of us do have that one food that is our kryptonite. Mine is cream biscuits (cookies). In order to stop myself from going overboard on them, I had to stop getting them altogether and avoid them like the plague. I can't just have one, so to avoid overeating them I had to cut them out altogether. For a lot of people, that would lead to uncontrollable cravings and subsequent binges. That's fair enough, we aren't all made the same.
If you need to have your kryptonite food occasionally so you don't crave it, fair enough. If you desperately crave a supreme pizza from your favourite pizza shop, okay. If you starve yourself all day, ignore your body and leave it unfueled so you can have an entire pizza for dinner, not okay. If you can't resist those foods, why not have a cheat day or a cheat meal? You don't have to deprive yourself and more importantly, you don't have to completely starve to make sure you stay in your range. Throw the calorie count away for one day or one meal if that will work for you. On the flip side, if you don't want to binge and you can't have just one bite or a small meal of that cheat food, you may have no choice but to exclude it until you can.
Another thing that can set people back in their journey (and discourage them from continuing to try) is trying too much too quickly. Humans are habitual creatures. We form habits relatively quickly and easily, but tearing those habits down can be a lot harder. If you try to make many drastic changes to your life in a short amount of time, there's a very good chance you will fall in a heap and never ever want to try again.
If you make small, sustainable changes over time, you will find they lead bigger changes and it has a bit of an avalanche effect. If you are a soft drink nut, cut that down, then eventually out altogether. If you have pizza every Friday, have one less slice and fill the void with fruit or something else more nutritious. These are just some examples of the many small changes you can make in the lead-up to a bigger, whole life change. This can also work back into expecting too much too fast. We didn't get where we are overnight, we can't expect to amend our lifestyle overnight. It's a long, slow process, but nothing worth having is easy.
One last thing that I personally think can make or break calorie counting and is the most important aspect, is attitude. If you obsess about staying in your range and get depressed, freaked out or stressed every time you aren't at that magical number, you may very well fail and even if you don't, you'll make yourself miserable. That's not succeeding. Making the calorie range the be-all and end-all of your existence is not a healthy attitude. It IS worth improving your health, it IS worth trying to stay in a healthy range, it is NOT worth tearing your hair out when you go 1 calorie over. Look at this change as a permanent lifestyle change, rather than hanging your very existence on the count.
After all of this, remember, this is only my opinion, learning and experiences, nothing is set in stone and of course there is no one-size-fits-all.